THe hysteria triggered in some areas of the media by the Scottish FA’s decision to stage this season’s Scottish Cup final at Celtic Park does not spring from an outraged sense of fair play, but from an impulsive, narrow-minded and outdated parochialism.
Insisting on an impeccably neutral venue for such an event – indeed, the very idea of a national football stadium – is a peculiarly British concept, one that has never taken root in continental Europe (the Stade de France in Paris hosts international football, rugby and athletics and, domestically, is the home of two rugby clubs, but remains the preferred arena for that sport’s national cup finals).
Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to the history of the European Cup/Champions League will be aware, too, that, for almost 60 years, the final of the most celebrated club tournament of all has been held (with the exception of Hampden Park and Wembley) at stadiums whose tenants have every chance of being participants in the big game.
This occurred as long ago as the second year of the competition, 1957, when the first winners, Real Madrid, made it back-to-back triumphs by beating Fiorentina at their own Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Internazionale enjoyed a similar experience when they beat Benfica at San Siro in 1965, and others have followed since.
In the context of the Celtic Park “controversy”, however, more significance should be attached to the considerably greater number of occasions on which leading clubs have failed even to reach the final in those years when it was scheduled for their home turf.
These include some of the biggest names in the game, Real Madrid, the two Milan clubs, Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. The Germans, improbable as it seems, did not make any of the three finals at their old home, the Olympiastadion. When they finally did, in the dazzling, newly-constructed Allianz Arena, they lost to Chelsea in 2012.
They were not the first, of course, and will almost certainly not be the last. When Liverpool lifted the old European Cup for the fourth time at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico in 1984, their beaten opponents were the home club, AS Roma.
But those who have fulminated against the SFA on the basis that the flitting of the cup final from the unavailable Hampden to Celtic Park will make it easier for the league champions to win the oldest trophy of all are surely guilty of a presumptuousness that is not supported by Celtic’s recent history under Neil Lennon. For all the manager’s accomplishments at home and abroad, there is a whole mess of blemishes on his record in the matter of domestic cups. The very sound of the names Ross County, St Mirren, Kilmarnock and Morton is likely to inflict on the Parkhead club’s supporters a severe bout of tinnitus.
This kind of failure is not uncommon. During his five years of general domination at Rangers (with the exception of 1987-88), for instance, Graeme Souness famously found it impossible to win the Scottish Cup. His cup CV, notoriously, includes defeat at Ibrox by Hamilton Accies.
But the most offensive aspect of the argument that Celtic’s passage to another triumph will be smoothed is the implicit deprecation of all the other teams in the competition, the unspoken, but plainly held, assumption that they will be incapable of resistance. Any prospective opponents watching Celtic floundering in Amsterdam in midweek would surely have slipped readily into bring-them-on mode.
Lennon’s obvious dissatisfaction with his players’ shoddy performance in the 1-0 defeat by an equally unimpressive Ajax was both predictable and understandable, but the disappointment should extend to a certain anxiety. Too many of his players’ weaknesses appeared to be the type for which there is no known cure.
A disturbing readiness to pass to a team-mate in a worse position than themselves speaks of either a lack of game intelligence or a nervous cop-out – or, more worryingly, both. Whatever the cause of the condition, it has no place in the Champions League. In this regard, Beram Kayal, Emilio Izaguirre, Charlie Mulgrew and Georgios Samaras (the last-named at his most frustrating) are consistent offenders.
Lennon appears now to have a surfeit of players whose promising early work at the club – Kayal, Izaguirre and Joe Ledley, for example – has proved to be short-lived, another of football’s peculiarities.
Being at the bottom of Group H should be neither a surprise nor a disgrace, since that is where their seeding says they should be. But the section itself has an overall moderate look and it could be rewarding to bet that neither of the two teams who qualify for the knockout phase – including Barcelona – will go much further.
Fergie revelation sums up Rangers’ decline and fall
Sir Alex Ferguson has long been a master of the concise, telling phrase, the best-known example of his brevity probably the one with which he gave an instant judgment on Manchester United’s absurdly dramatic victory in the 1999 Champions League final – “Football? Bloody hell”.Even he could be said to have topped that, however, with a revelation in his new autobiography, which encapsulates in less than ten words all the mismanagement and misfortune and the depth of the descent of Rangers over the past few years. Referring to the time in 1991 when Walter Smith, having succeeded Graeme Souness, lured Archie Knox from Old Trafford to Ibrox as his assistant, Ferguson writes, “I couldn’t get Martin (Edwards, the United chairman) to match Rangers’ offer”. From outbidding United for a first-team coach to being unable to settle a debt of just over £500 to the local newsagent is a jolting reminder of the financial devastation wrought by what Shakespeare would have called David Murray’s “vaulting ambition”.